Research Ethics
Topics on research ethics range from human experimentation and animal experimentation to fraud, misuse of data, whistleblowing, and the very topics of research itself (e.g., weapons, unsafe products).

Classroom Case Studies || Historical Case Studies || Questions
Resources || Institutions and Policies || Journals || Essays

Classroom Case Studies
(from Frances Vandervoort):
  • In the Shadow of Pulsars
  • Being Scooped by Your Own Work
  • A "Doctored" Doctorate?
  • Preempting Theft of Data
  • Editorial Responsibility
  • Science for Who?
    (from Jon Fiorella):
  • Using Nazi Data
  • Renegade Research?

    Historical Case Studies

  • Nazi medical experiments and Document F321 from the Nuremberg Council
  • The Tuskegee syphilis experiments
    ---with resonances in AIDS testing in Africa? (with further comments)
  • Human Radiation Experiments (U.S. Dept. of Energy) -- or peruse copy of the Final Report (1996)
  • Competition, Credit, Lying and Stealing in Science

  • Resources
  • Nat'l Acad. of Sci. highlights integrity "On Being a Scientist"

    Institutions & Policies

  • National Academy of Science -- "On Being a Scientist"
  • AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program (Directorate for Science and Policy Programs)
  • U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity (ORI)
  • Guide to other institutional policy statements and professional societies
  • Poynter Center for ethics in the professions -- general ethics, professional and applied ethics, research ethics


  • Science and Engineering Ethics
  • Professional Ethics Report (AAAS, online)


  • Flirting with Fraud: Historical Update on Millikan and Mendel
  • Are Teachers Frauds?

  • In the Shadow of Pulsars

    Case from Frances Vandervoort:
    You are a graduate student working for a leading astronomer. Your job is to use a sophisticated radio telescope the astronomer designed for observing variable radio sources in the universe. After several weeks of analyzing data, you realize you have discovered a totally new kind of star -- one that provides evidence for the origin of the universe. Your boss congratulates you for your fine work, writes a major report on it, and wins a Nobel Prize. What should you do?

    Being Scooped by Your Own Work

    Case from Frances Vandervoort:
    You are a young scientist who recently sent a paper based on your research in adolescent anorexia to an important scientific journal to be considered for publication. As is the custom, the journal's editor sends the paper out for review to other experts in the field. After several weeks he returns the paper to you, rejecting it because he claims that its reviewers found that "it contains several major errors and misinterpretations." Then, several months later, in another journal you find an article containing data almost identical to your own, and using sentences and descriptions similar to yours. What should you do?

    A "Doctored" Doctorate?

    Case from Frances Vandervoort:
    You are a graduate student working on a Ph.D. in chemistry at a prestigious university. A good friend of yours who is a graduate student in the same lab reveals to you that he hasn't done all the experiments he said he did, and that a substantial part of his data has been doctored to make it look like it is based on original work. What should you do?

    Preempting Theft

    Case from Frances Vandervoort:
    A scientist doing research on sickle cell disease finds a way to produce a chemical from genetically changed mice that reduces the symptoms of sickle cell disease in many of its victims. Because he recognizes that he could earn a lot of money if the chemical is produced commercially, he does not want to reveal some of the details of the procedure for production. He submits a paper for publication in which he deliberately includes an incorrect gene sequences. The paper is well written and plausible, and unless the referees attempt to clone the gene themselves, they would have no way of knowing of the deliberate error. When the paper is accepted for publication, the scientist will correct the error. Is the scientist justified in misrepresenting his data? --What if he withholds the proper sequence from the final publication?

    Editorial Responsibility

    Case from Frances Vandervoort:
    You are editor of a prestigious scientific journal that is respected around the world for its timely, accurate reporting. A story is "leaked" to you by a confidential source that provides strong evidence that a major scientist working on HIV (the AIDS virus) has reported false data in his experiments. What should you do?

    Science for Who?

    Case from Frances Vandervoort:
    You are a scientist at a major university who has discovered a chemical broth that makes it easy to grow the virus that causes AIDS in a laboratory flask. What will you do? --share the recipe immediately with all laboratories that need it for AIDS research? --or publish first? --or solicit offers from pharmaceutical companies who might want to market the broth?

    Using Nazi Data

    Case from Jon Fiorella
    During the early part of World War II the Nazi's lost many pilots during the Battle of Britain in the icy waters of the English Channel. On land large numbers of Germans froze on the Russian front.

    The Nazi's decided to start cold experiments at Dachau concentration camp in mid-August of 1942. They conducted about 400 different experiments using approximately 300 prisoners.

    The experiments involved leaving the people in vats of icy water for hours or in the freezing outdoors. The Nazi's measured their changes in blood, urine, spinal fluid, muscle reflexes, heart action and body temperature.

    When the patients' temperatures dropped below 79.7 degrees F, various ways of rewarming were tried. Rapid rewarming proved most effective. Slow rewarming was not very effective and alcohol actually hastened cooling. Up to 100 prisoners died during these experiments.

    Approximately 1000 people die of exposure to cold in the U.S. every year. No current data is available as complete or as accurate as that of the Nazi's. It was determined that the Nazi method of rapid rewarming in hot water be used as the treatment of choice by the Air-Sea Rescue Services of the U.S. Armed Forces.

    1. May someone now use Nazi data, given the circumstances under which it was obtained?
    2. Some people see using the data as analogous to organ transplants: from death, a heart or kidney provides life. Do you agree?
    3. The Nazis had considered the ethics of their research and justified it under the principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number." Does this principle apply in this case? (How/how not?) Does it matter that many Nazi's had actually reflected on the morality of their actions?
    4. Can you imagine any circumstances in which it might be permissible to extract information from subjects that are unwilling participants or unaware that they are involved in an experiment?

    [This problem was also addressed by the EPA in deciding whether to use Nazi data in establishing regulations on the poison phosgene.]

    Renegade Research?

    Case from Jon Fiorella
    Thomas Creighton, a 33-year-old mechanic, was dying of heart disease. The surgeons at the University of Arizona performed a heart transplant on him, but the new heart was rejected.

    Instead of waiting two hours to use the approved Jarvik-7 artificial heart, they implanted an unauthorized artificial heart.

    Two hours after the surgery, the doctors removed the artificial heart and implanted a second human heart. This second heart transplant also failed. Mr. Creighton died forty-six hours after the first surgery. The Food and Drug Administration investigated, but took no action against the surgeons involved.

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